Plaschke: Shohei Ohtani's first Dodgers home run lands in fan controversy

Shohei Ohtani watches his first home run as a Dodger fly well over the fence.

It was a wondrous Dodgers postcard, a man in a Fernando Valenzuela jersey lifting a woman in a Dodgers bucket hat as she waved a historic home run ball high above a sea of blue.

That was the magical scene Wednesday night in Dodger Stadium's right-field pavilion as Ambar Roman and husband Alexis Valenzuela celebrated Roman’s grab of Shohei Ohtani’s first home run as a Dodger.

It was a valuable souvenir. It was a frenzied scene. It was a priceless moment.

It was a nightmare.

“It started out so good,” Valenzuela said. “Then it ended in a hustle.”

In a swift and strong-armed reversal of fortune, the young couple were immediately surrounded by security guards and escorted underneath the stands.

“I said, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ ” Roman recalled. “They said, ‘No, we want to reward you.' ”

Some reward.

Roman was persuaded to surrender the potentially lucrative piece of memorabilia for an autographed bat, an autographed ball and two autographed caps.

Roman said she was told if she wanted to keep the potentially six-figures ball, the Dodgers would not authenticate it and the ball would be worthless.

Roman said she was told she had to negotiate the exchange on the spot, without input from her husband, who was asked to remain at the other end of a hallway.

Contrary to a strong implication from Ohtani during his postgame news conference, Roman said they never met the superstar or were even brought anywhere near him.

The couple said their evening ended with the Dodgers failing to escort them to their car as promised. With so many fans hanging around staring at them, and with the new souvenirs in tow, they felt compelled to shed their Dodgers gear so they could anonymously leave Chavez Ravine in peace.

That wondrous postcard had devolved into a portrait of disillusionment, two die-hards wondering how something so historic could turn so ugly so quickly.

Read more: Hernández: For a 'relieved' Shohei Ohtani, first home run carries weight

Said Valenzuela: “It was such a big moment. What happened kind of stains it.”

Said Roman: “It’s done now, and I’m not mad, I’ll still be the same fan. But they shouldn’t have been so pressuring.”

The Dodgers would not comment on the specifics of the couple's account, but after being contacted for this column, they reconnected with Roman and arranged for the couple to return for another game during which they will receive more valuable authenticated memorabilia. The Dodgers also said they’re going to review their procedures involving fans who catch milestone balls.

“We’re excited to host them again for a special night and give them a special Dodger experience,” said Lon Rosen, the Dodgers’ executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “And we’re going to review the process.”

There are no such easy answers for Ohtani’s postgame news conference comments, in which he said, “... Came back and talked to the fan.”

While most of the Japanese speakers in attendance thought he meant he had spoken to Roman directly — which would not be true — he never used the word “I,” so perhaps he was talking about the Dodgers’ security team. Regardless, for a player already under great scrutiny, it was yet another questionable move that could have been avoided if he had just been more clear about the truth.

Fans celebrate after Shohei Ohtani hit his first home run as a member of the Dodgers on Wednesday night.
Fans celebrate after Shohei Ohtani hit his first home run as a member of the Dodgers on Wednesday night. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The quest to maintain Ohtani’s image and keep him happy has been an early narrative on this team, and seemed to be the driving force behind this latest kerfuffle, in which a couple of 28-year-olds from Whittier were just trying to enjoy a night at the ballpark.

“Dodger Stadium was one of our first dates,” said Valenzuela, who works with his wife at a pipeline construction company. “The team means a lot to us.”

The couple attend a half-dozen games a year, often sitting in the outfield pavilions because it’s more fun. In the seventh inning Wednesday night against the San Francisco Giants, it also became wild, as Ohtani’s line drive was headed in their direction.

“We could see it coming right toward us, and everyone around us was rushing for it,” Roman said.

The ball bounced off several outstretched hands and landed at their feet as Valenzuela dived for it. But it wasn’t there. Roman had already calmly leaned over and picked it up.

“I’m on the ground and I hear my girl screaming and I look up and she has the ball,” Valenzuela said. “It was indescribable.”

It was also rich with more than just the memory, as many of the surrounding fans quickly reminded them.

Read more: Shohei Ohtani hits his first home run for Dodgers in sweep of Giants

“Right now with the current publicity and interest in Ohtani globally, you can see this ball being worth between $50,000 and $100,000,” said Dave Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, longtime sports memorabilia auctioneers in Exton, Pa.

Ohtani’s first home run, in his 37th at-bat this season, also ended more than one drought.

“It was the first time I’ve ever got a ball,” Roman said. “And to get one in this situation was special.”

They soon learned how special when security guards rushed them away and immediately began negotiations. According to the couple, the guards insisted on bargaining only with Roman — while Valenzuela was asked to remain down the hallway and out of the conversation.

“I’m telling them, ‘I’m with her, that’s my wife, it’s my wife, we’re in this together,’ but they kept like 20 to 30 feet between us,” said Valenzuela. “If I was in there, we could have talked about it.”

According to Roman, they didn’t give her much to talk about.

“They said, ‘You just caught Ohtani’s first home run, and he would really really want this ball back, and he’s willing to trade,' ” she recalled.

When Roman asked if she could keep the ball, they warned her of the consequences.

“They said I could keep it, but he wouldn’t sign it and they wouldn’t authenticate it,” she said. “And if it’s not authenticated, how much is this ball really worth?”

Shohei Ohtani hits his first home run as a Dodger off Giants pitcher Taylor Rogers.

While a major-league authenticator sits in the dugouts during games for all milestone moments, a team is under no obligation to authenticate anything for fans. Such authentication is necessary to get full value for a souvenir, as it is difficult to prove the origin of an unofficial ball. It was all so overwhelming for Roman, who felt pushed into making a rushed decision by herself without all the information. She bargained them up from their initial offer of two signed caps and begrudgingly accepted the deal.

“It was just me and my thoughts,” she said. “I do wish I could have talked to my husband.”

Valenzuela said he would have kept the ball. With the photo evidence of his wife and the ball, and with Ohtani’s memorabilia market spanning continents, chances are somebody would have paid for it. Maybe not $100,000, but they could have turned a nice profit.

“I feel like the Dodgers took advantage of us,” Valenzuela said.

The couple thought they would at least get to meet Ohtani, and were surprised to hear his comments afterward.

Read more: Hernández: Shohei Ohtani shows no hint of scandal distracting him in his Dodgers home debut

“We weren’t demanding millions, we were starstruck, we would have loved to meet the guy,” Valenzuela said. “But we never got a chance.”

They’re not even convinced he actually signed the memorabilia the Dodgers handed them.

“I’m still having a lot of doubts, a lot of what-ifs, about the whole thing,” Valenzuela said.

As they left the stadium, alone and in virtual disguise, the postcard couple were struck by the futility of their situation.

“We were just little people going against a major-league team,” Valenzuela said.

The Dodgers won. The Dodgers lost.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.